COLUMBIA — As the huge monkey balloon rises into the sky at the Columbia Balloon Invitational this weekend, it will be cheered on by a dancing banana.
“They try to make me wear the banana costume every time,” Adam McGee said of his parents, Liz and Noel.
Liz has flown at balloon competitions for 13 years. But this weekend, Noel will don the costume, and Adam will be up in the air, piloting his first competitive flight. Adam, 18, just earned his pilot’s license, which is required to fly a hot air balloon, in July.
He will be one of the youngest participants at the invitational, which runs Friday through Sunday around Corporate Lake. Most competitors have much more experience than Adam does, including his mom.
“She’s worried that I’m going to beat her,” McGee said. “We’ve been joking about who’s going to win, the student or the teacher.”
He’s come a long way since he took his first ride with his mom while she competed in Creston, Iowa, when he was 6 years old. She made him wear a bicycle helmet “to be safe,” he said.
Now she watches him fly and tries not to worry. Watching his first flight “was kind of nerve-wracking, but now it’s all right,” Liz said. “He’s pretty level-headed. I think it helps that he’s been around ballooning as long as he has. We’ve talked about it since he was five.”
It helps to be level-headed in a competition like this, organizers say. The pilots need to consider speed, wind, direction, altitude and timing while trying to earn points for various tasks, like dropping a weighted bag onto a target.
And no matter how skilled a pilot is, he or she always has to worry about the weather. Event co-coordinator Vicki Fogue said that while pilots steer with the changing wind, they are also at its mercy.
“It’s compared with sailing a lot,” she said.
Like sailing, ballooning can be a cumbersome sport. Balloonists travel to cities across the continent, often with family in tow.
“Oh, I’d rather he play baseball,” Noel said of his son.
But Noel enjoys the time he spends with his family during these events. He explained that the long road trips and motel stays make for ample family time with his wife, son and daughter, Sarah.
“When you’re together, you’re together,” Noel said.
As of Wednesday, Adam is one of 30 balloonists who will test his skill and luck in the sky this weekend. The invitational makes for a wonderful family event, according to Gary Whitby, an event co-coordinator, “The most used transportation last year was a stroller,” Whitby said. “Kids are just in awe of this stuff.”
Adam, who is still kind of a kid himself, will be a senior at Rock Bridge High School this school year. Even though he has a driver’s license, and now a pilot’s license, he’s still under some restrictions from his mom. His friends would all love to take a ride in his balloon, but Adam said he can’t yet.
“My mom won’t let me,” he said. “She thinks I’ll be too distracted and stuff.”
Columbia Balloon Invitational
When: 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Where: 200 Corporate Lake Drive
Call 864-0645 for more information.